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O'Driscoll to retain captaincy but injuries mount

Ireland coach Declan Kidney will today confirm Brian O'Driscoll's retention as captain ahead of the Grand Slam defence as a mini injury crisis continues to disrupt the squad's preparations 10 days before the Six Nations opener against Italy.

The number of players unable to participate in training, or else restricted to limited involvement, soared into double figures this week after a torrid fortnight of Heineken Cup action.

However, Ireland manager Paul McNaughton played down the seriousness of the casualty list by confidently declaring that Kidney should have a full deck to deal with for their opening Croke Park joust.

"Several guys weren't able to train this week," said McNaughton from the squad's Limerick base yesterday, as he announced a 22-man 'A' squad to take on the England Saxons in Bath on Sunday.

"To a certain extent this is a normal state of affairs, especially after weeks five and six of the Heineken Cup. It's one of the reasons we had such an enlarged squad in the first instance.

"I think on Monday we had only one full line-out because there were so many bangs, but we are expecting everyone to be fit and available. It's not surprising so many are off their feet -- it's happened before."

Several players sat out training yesterday. Donncha O'Callaghan (knee), Sean Cronin (ankle), Denis Hurley (leg) and Stephen Ferris (shin) were not involved, while Ronan O'Gara, Gordon D'Arcy, Jonathan Sexton and Shane Horgan missed the session as a precaution.

Keith Earls had not yet arrived in camp because of illness, while Rory Best, Marcus Horan and Jerry Flannery, who has a slight shoulder problem, all stepped up their training following their recent absences from their provincial sides as they seek to garner some valuable playing time this weekend in order to be considered for the Italy game.

"Anybody playing in that 'A' squad will be eligible and will be thought of for the following week," confirmed McNaughton. "Nothing been ruled out."